Jefferson County voters approve establishment of Port of Port Townsend on November 4, 1924.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 7/30/2010
  • Essay 9490
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On November 4, 1924, the voters of Jefferson County approve the creation of the Port of Port Townsend (not to be confused with the city of Port Townsend). The port district encompasses the entire county -- more than 1,800 square miles, bounded on the west by the Pacific Ocean, on the north by Clallam County and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, on the south by Grays Harbor and Mason counties, and on the east by Hood Canal and Admiralty Inlet. From that beginning, the Port will progress through three fairly distinct periods. From its founding until after the end of World War II, the Port is hamstrung by the county's persistent economic woes and able to accomplish little; from the 1950s through the 1980s, the Port will incrementally add to and improve its properties and facilities; from the 1990s into the twenty-first century, the Port acquires additional land, improves existing facilities and opens new ones, and develops a comprehensive roadmap for future development. Going forward, the Port will be guided by the goals and strategies of its 2010-2015 Strategic Plan, prepared with the participation by other local governments and the public, and adopted in March 2010.

A City and a Port

Although the city of Port Townsend and the Port of Port Townsend are entirely different entities, their histories are intertwined, and a brief account of Port Townsend's rise and fall in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gives context to the origins and early history of the port.

Located where the Strait of Juan de Fuca funnels into Puget Sound, Port Townsend was a natural stopping-off point for ocean-going sailing ships bound for Seattle, Olympia, and other down-sound trade centers. In 1854 the Puget Sound Customs Collection District was moved to Port Townsend from Olympia, and every ship sailing from a foreign port was required to stop there. This enforced layover gave sea traders an opportunity to obtain whatever they needed, including crewmen, and the townspeople the opportunity to sell it to them, including crewmen.

Chandleries carried ship supplies of every description, and the less savory trade of "crimping," also called shanghaiing, was not at all uncommon. The town boomed and for a time was one of the leading settlements in Washington Territory. By 1860, optimistic boosters were calling Port Townsend the "City of Dreams" and the "Key City" in anticipation of the role it seemed destined to play in the region's growth.

The Challenges of Change

It was not to last. The first blow came when the railroad didn't. The city had hoped to be the northern terminus of a Union Pacific Railroad line running between the major towns and cities of Puget Sound and south to the transcontinental rail links in Portland. Local entrepreneurs built tracks as far as Quilcene, 21 miles to the south of Port Townsend, but no tracks came north to meet them. By 1890 it was clear that there would be no railroad. At about the same time, steam-powered, ocean-going vessels with screw propellers were making the venerable sailing ships obsolete. Undeterred by the fluky winds of inland waters, if a steamship didn't have to stop at Port Townsend to clear customs, more often than not it did not stop at all.

The nationwide economic depression that began in 1893 inflicted further damage, and for the next 20 years the town just scraped by. Then, in 1913, the customs house was relocated to Seattle. This was a tremendous blow. Now no ships were legally required to stop at Port Townsend, most didn't, and the gradual decline of the preceding 20 years became a precipitous plunge. Commerce ground to a near-halt, and a sort of paralysis gripped the small city for at least a decade.

A Port in the Storm

In 1911, the Washington State Legislature passed  the Port Districts Act (RCW 53.04.010 et seq.), which authorized  the creation of public port districts upon a petition and a majority vote of a county's electorate. Over the next 12 years, more than 20 port districts were established in Washington, but for reasons that are now obscure Port Townsend, despite its colorful history as a bustling port city, was not one of them.

When the business people of Port Townsend and the surrounding area finally did act, in 1924, they looked south to Seattle for guidance. George Cotterill (1865-1958), characterized by the Port Townsend Weekly Leader as the "moving spirit of the great Seattle port project" was invited by the local Commercial Club to sell the idea of a port district to the citizens of Jefferson County. The newspaper also commented that "It is generally believed that the time is ripe for such a move ... " (Weekly Leader, September 19, 1924). Many would say that the time was over-ripe -- the population of Port Townsend had been more than halved in the preceding two decades, and things were not getting better.

Cotterill Sells the Concept

George F. Cotterill dutifully trundled up from Seattle on September 25, 1924, to tout the benefits of a port district, and within a week of his visit petitions were circulating throughout  Jefferson County asking that a port proposal be put on the November ballot. The county had three voting districts, all centered on its eastern edge -- one in the vicinity of Port Townsend, one around Chimacum, and one encompassing Quilcene and the Hood Canal region. Each district was to elect a port commissioner, who would take office if the measure passed.

With less than two months before the election, the Weekly Leader and local businesses beat the drum for the measure, and on election day the Port proposal carried by 690 in favor and 414 opposed. The first elected port commissioners were A. Frank Anderson, of Port Townsend; Samuel Curry, of Chimacum; and G. A. Whitehead, of Quilcene. Had they been given a choice, the voters of Jefferson County may well have picked a different and less redundant name for the Port of Port Townsend. But state law mandated that a port district covering an entire county be named after the "principal seaport city within such proposed port district ... " and that, of course, was the city of Port Townsend (RCW 53.04.020).

Now What?

Before a port commission could spend a penny on anything other than necessary overhead, the Port Districts Act required that a "comprehensive scheme of harbor improvements" be adopted and presented to the voters for approval (RCW 53.20.010). This was to prove no small task and was to take nearly two years. Badly in need of some expertise, the port commission again looked to whence George Cotterill had come and hired the Port of Seattle's secretary, Hamilton Higday (1879?-1939), to become first manager of the new Port of Port Townsend. For reasons that are no longer clear, Higday chose to manage the port from an office in Seattle.

Higday's time with Seattle's port commission had taught him valuable lessons on the practical and political considerations of setting up a port district. On July 21, 1926, he sent a draft comprehensive scheme, entitled Resolution No. 9,  to Commissioner Anderson. In it, Higday cautioned against providing the public with too much detail, too soon:

"I think it would be well to consider this quite carefully before turning over any copy to the Port Townsend Leader for publication ... .

Presumably politics is rampant and each candidate for public office will probably have something to say for or against the Port program. My idea of the statement is to get the idea of development and progress across without prejudicing the matter by indicating the precise locations. When it comes to selecting a site, every man thinks he is an expert or attacks the matter from the standpoint of self-interest ... " (Higday).

Higday's plan included five "Units" of development, four planned for Port Townsend and one for Quilcene. The voters were to have the last word, as Higday noted:

"The question now is, do the people of Jefferson County want the Overseas Dock, the Whidby [sic] Ferry, the Quilcene Dock, the Farmers' Cold Storage and Fisherman's Haven?" (Higday).

The answer to that was yes. The Port of Port Townsend Comprehensive Scheme was approved by the voters in October 1926 by a vote of 858 to 728. The proposal reflected the reality of the day, concentrating  on maritime transportation and shipping, agricultural and timber exports, and facilities for small fishing and pleasure vessels. The plan was comprehensive, it was ambitious, and it was largely doomed from the start, first by the Great Depression and later by Jefferson County's stubborn and long-lasting economic woes.

Although Crown Zellerbach threw the city a lifeline when it opened its Port Townsend Paper Mill  in late 1928, the mill had little or no direct impact on the port district, and the ambitious Resolution No. 9 remained for the most part a statement of unfulfilled aspirations. In 1931 the Port completed a small boat harbor southwest of downtown on Port Townsend Bay, and it did operate a passenger and auto ferry, the Nordland, between the mainland and Marrowstone Island until 1953, when the new Portage Canal Bridge made that unnecessary. But between the early 1930s and the early 1950s, successive generations of port commissioners, despite the best of intentions, were unable to accomplish very much. They met, they planned, they resolved, but there simply wasn't funding available to carry out much of anything.

Signs of Life: The 1950s

In 1947 the port stirred to life with the establishment of a small boat harbor at Quilcene, 21 miles to the south of Port Townsend. In 1954 and 1955, the commission authorized the purchase of several properties within Port Townsend's city limits "for public purposes," and starting in 1956 it went on a modest buying spree, obtaining Fort Worden from the federal government, additional property at its Quilcene marina site, and land at Hadlock near the south end of Port Townsend Bay. In two major expansions, the Port in early 1957 purchased the U.S. government's surplus facilities on Point Hudson at the entrance to the bay, and in 1959 it took over ownership and operation of the Jefferson County Airport, now the Jefferson County International Airport. The Fort Worden property, with the exception of its beach frontage, was soon sold to the state of Washington for use as a juvenile treatment center and ultimately became a state park, but the Port set about developing its other acquisitions as funding permitted. 

The Port of Port Townsend's history between 1960 and the first decade of the twenty-first century was punctuated by periods of growth and periods of consolidation, with the Port both buying and selling properties as it refined its comprehensive plan to best reconcile goals with means. One way to trace the Port's progress during these years is to summarize briefly the history and development of the several port properties, starting with its major installations.

The Port Townsend Boat Haven Marina: Acting on a 1927 appeal from the Port Townsend Chamber of Commerce, and following three years of study, the port commission in September 1930 resolved to build

"A haven in the form of a sheltered inclosure as a protection against wind and waves, together with suitable floats and docks for landing and mooring small craft of all descriptions, and keeping them under proper protection ... a haven to serve the needs of deep sea fishing boats ...  temporary parking places for yachts and pleasure craft ... and government small boats ... and other vessels of a public and private nature ..." (Resolution No. 24).

This was the Port's first capital project, and the commissioners called on the expertise of the manager of the Port of Olympia, who happened to be a trained engineer, to evaluate the plans and select the most suitable site for a boat haven. To purchase land and build the facility, the commission authorized a $60,000 bond issue, also its first. Work finally began in 1931 when the Puget Sound Bridge and Dredging Company drove the first piling. Today the marina and the adjacent Port Townsend Yard, located on Port Townsend Bay to the southwest of the city's commercial district, are the jewels in the Port's crown. The marina and yard together provide well more than half of the Port's annual revenue.

Although the marina has been expanded over the intervening decades, the uses for which it was originally intended still prevail. The 19-acre rectangular moorage is home port to at least 475 pleasure and commercial craft and provides temporary docking for more than 6,000 overnight visitors each year. There is a separate basin for commercial fishing vessels, equipped with a net float and a seafood-loading dock and crane. Even the 1930 provision for government vessels is fulfilled, with the Coast Guard cutter Osprey moored at the marina.

At the time of this writing (2010), the port commission is preparing for the renovation of the marina's aged AB Docks at a cost of nearly $3.5 million, the biggest port project since the marina underwent a major expansion and improvements in the 1970s. Included in future plans are renovations to the public fuel dock, relocation of the Coast Guard, a yacht club, and a launch facility and additional moorage space for larger vessels.

Port Townsend Yard: Adjacent to the marina is the Port Townsend Yard, now ranked as the largest public boatyard in the Northwest. It features three travel-lifts (mobile slings used to haul and launch vessels), the largest of which can accommodate ships up to 150 feet in length and weighing up to 330 tons. These lifts, together with 17 acres of dry-land storage, have made the yard a mecca for marine construction and repair, and it is estimated that it provides 400 direct and 600 indirect jobs for Jefferson County. The Port allows owners to work on their own vessels, something that is not permitted in many, if not most, public yards.

The shipyard portion of the yard, finished in 1997, hosts approximately 100 marine-related businesses. There are firms and individuals specializing in ship construction and repair, and a variety of outlets selling marine equipment and supplies. There are also several restaurants that cater to workers, marina tenants, and visiting boaters. The Port is working on plans to extend the yard farther south; add a new breakwater and additional moorage space; establish a public beach; create on-shore areas for large-vessel construction, fish-processing, and cold-storage facilities; and expand the yard area set aside for marine-related businesses and trades.

The Point Hudson Marina  and RV Park: After briefly leasing Point Hudson in the 1920s with thoughts of locating the boat haven there, the Port in 1932 turned the property back over to Jefferson County, which then sold it to the federal government. A quarantine hospital for the Bureau of Immigration was built on the site, but never used for that purpose. Instead, Point Hudson went on to house three of America's five service branches in succession -- the Coast Guard, from 1936 until World War II;  the Navy, which used the base during that conflict; and the Army, which moved in during the Korean War and made the point part of its Fort Worden facility. The Port purchased the property in 1956 after it was declared surplus. For 40 years, from 1962 until 2002, the Port leased the property to a private entity, which ran the old hospital building as the Point Townsend Motel.

Since taking full control of Point Hudson in 2002, the Port has worked to restore the property's historical ambience. Its administrative offices are now housed in the original hospital building, which has been meticulously renovated, and other structures from earlier days are used by marine-related companies and organizations. The old Armory building houses several businesses, including a sail loft and a boat repair shop. The Wooden Boat Foundation & Northwest Maritime Center, which in 1977 staged North America's first Wooden Boat Festival at the Point Hudson Marina (now an annual event), has offices in both the point's historic Cupola Building and in the new Maritime Heritage Building, located at the end of Water Street adjacent to the marina, where the foundation also operates a chandlery, or ship-supply store.

The Point Hudson Marina has been a source of steady revenue for the Port, and in recent years major improvements have been made, including replacement of the entire dock system in 2007 and the deepening of the moorage by dredging in 2009. The marina covers four acres and has 44 slips for permanent berthing and 700 feet of floating docks for guest moorage. Along the beach in front of the old hospital building is a popular RV park operated by the Port, with spaces for 48 campers. Future plans call for phasing out RV camping and converting the beachfront to purely public use.

The Herb Beck Marina and Industrial Park: The Port first opened the Quilcene Boat Harbor on the euphonious Linger Longer Road in 1947. The small marina lies in a sheltered man-made harbor on the northwest shore of Quilcene Bay. In 1966 the port commission created an Industrial Development District that included the Quilcene area, and in 1971 it purchased additional property adjacent to the boat harbor to accommodate light industry. In 1978 this became home to Coast Seafoods' oyster hatchery, now the largest such facility in the world.

The marina has also been developed and improved over the years, and generates income for the Port in a variety of ways. It offers 50 moorage slips, fueling facilities, showers, restrooms, a septic system, an area for RV parking with electrical hook-ups and cable, a swimming beach, a boat-launch ramp, and a day-use picnic area.  In 2005, the entire facility was renamed the Herb Beck Marina in honor of a port commissioner of that name who served the Quilcene district for 36 years.

Jefferson County International Airport: What is now the Jefferson County International Airport started out as a small, military-training airfield that was carved out of the forest about five miles south of Port Townsend shortly before World War II. In 1947 the military turned the airport over to Jefferson County, which ran it until 1959. In July of that year, the Port of Port Townsend agreed to assume responsibility for operating and maintaining the facility. Since that time the Port has more than doubled its land ownership at the airport, to 316 acres. The airport is an international port of entry and popular with fliers from across the border in Canada.

In 1990, the original grass landing strip was replaced with a 3,000-foot-long concrete runway located about 450 feet to the south of the old strip. The facility is classified as a general aviation airport, accommodating civilian aircraft used for purposes of personal, business, and instructional flying. It currently averages about 160 take-offs and landings a day, and although there are no regularly scheduled passenger flights, charter flights and air taxis land at the airport regularly. Plans to extend the runway an additional 500 feet to accommodate larger planes are complicated by the fact that the airport is bracketed between State Routes 19 and 20, one or both of which would have to be rerouted to accommodate a longer runway.

Additional improvements, including new taxiways, were made to the airport throughout the 1990s. Private developers are building 65 new hangars on airport property, many of which were completed by 2010. Several business catering to the flyers are port tenants, and the Spruce Goose Café is a popular airport dining spot. The nonprofit Port Townsend Aero Museum, which features an extensive collection of vintage planes and a restoration workshop, first opened at the airport in 2001 and moved into a new, $3.5 million facility in 2008. Although not without controversy, the 2009 decision of the Jefferson County Commissioners to rezone 24 acres of port-owned property adjacent to the airport for environmentally sensitive light-industrial use will provide the Port with an additional source of income.

Stand-Alone Boat-Launch Facilities: The Port of Port Townsend established stand-alone boat-launch ramps at Gardiner near the entrance to Discovery Bay (1959), Mats Mats Bay north of Port Ludlow on Puget Sound (1983), and at Port Hadlock in south Port Townsend Bay (1956). These generate income for the Port through the charge of a small fee for the use of the ramps. The Port's current comprehensive plan calls for improvements at all three sites. There are also launching ramps at the Port Townsend Boat Haven and the Herb Beck Marina.

Kai Tai Lagoon: The port owns 21 acres of undeveloped land on Kai Tai Lagoon, a small, land-locked body of water just north of the Boat Haven Marina. The port's property there includes a restroom and parking area, and the  city of Port Townsend currently leases it from the port for use as a public park.

Fort Worden Beach: The Port retained a 1,200-foot strip of undeveloped sandy beach when it sold Fort Worden to the state in 1957. It includes a boat-in camping area and is popular year-around with beach walkers and divers, while in the summer months it's a popular site for swimming,  sunbathing, and beach volleyball.

In addition to the above, the Port owns the Quincy Street Dock, a decommissioned ferry dock located in downtown Port Townsend. The Port’s ownership is limited to approximately 3,000 square feet of tidelands; the city owns the facilities on shore. Currently (2010) a local business is leasing the dock area and performing restorations to make it available for limited uses. 

What the Future Holds

Because the Port of Port Townsend's writ covers all of Jefferson County other than the Olympic National Park, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be jurisdictional and planning disagreements over the years with county and local governments, and with private landowners. In recent years, the Port has attempted to reconcile competing interests and work cooperatively for the benefit of all. In the 1970s, the Port cooperated with other interested parties to gain historical recognition for the city's waterfront and the nineteenth-century residential area located on the bluff above downtown. In 1976, both were placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a National Historic District, and Port Townsend is recognized as one of only three Victorian seaports on the register.

As a steward of the land, the Port has worked to make every foot of shoreline under its control accessible to foot traffic. The Point Hudson beach trail, the Kah Tai Lagoon and Nature Trail, Fort Worden Beach, boat ramps, and, at Quilcene, the only warm water beach in Jefferson County, are all freely open to the public. 

The Port has also worked with private businesses, public agencies, and non-profit groups to ensure that economic, environmental, and social considerations are part of its decision-making process. In 2008, work began on a Strategic Plan to guide the Port's activities for the 2010-2015 period. County and municipal governments and other stakeholders who will be impacted by Port programs and activities participated in identifying goals and determining future actions.

After nearly two years of study and preparation, the final strategic plan was adopted by the port commission on March 4, 2010. The goals identified by the plan are enhanced community access to Port properties; coordination and cooperation with count and local government to foster sustainable economic development; continued improvements to Port-owned infrastructure; increased public involvement in the decision-making process; financial transparency; and environmental stewardship. A nine-member Port Strategic Advisory Committee was appointed to do an annual assessment of the progress on the plan and to evaluate the Port's adherence to its objectives.   

The Port of Port Townsend got off to a late start and then had to endure decades of economic constraints. Now (2010) in its 86th year, it stands on much firmer financial ground, has a strong inventory of income-producing properties, has detailed future plans in place, and looks forward to continuing to serve the community and fulfilling the goals it has set.


Port of Port Townsend Community Report, Spring 2009 (; Hamilton Higday to A. Frank Anderson, July 21, 1926 (copy in possession of John Caldbick, Seattle Washington); "About Us," Port Townsend Aero Museum website accessed July 15, 2010 (; "The Economic Impact of the Port of Port Townsend and the Maritime Industries of Jefferson County: 2003," The Economic Development Council of Jefferson County, Port of Port Townsend website accessed July 16, 2010 (; "Brief History of Special Districts in Washington," Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington website accessed on July 3, 2010 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Levy, Maxwell (d. 1931), Port Townsend's Crimper King" (by Elizabeth Gibson), and "Crown Zellerbach's National Paper Products Mill in Port Townsend starts operation on October 6, 1928" (by Daryl C. McClary), and "Jefferson County -- Thumbnail History" (by Daryl C. McClary), (accessed July 10, 2010);   "Port Townsend, Washington," Northwest Fisheries Science Center website accessed July 16, 2010  ( divisions/sd/communityprofiles/Washington/Port_Townsend_WA.pdf); Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander,  Exploring Washington's Past: A Road Guide to History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, [1990] 2003) 500; Jeff Chew, "Beck Down on Farm, but 'Not Going Away,' Soon-To-Be Ex-Port Commissioner Says," Peninsula Daily News website accessed July 15, 2010 (; "Port Area Plan Pushed," Port Townsend Weekly Leader, September 19, 1924, p. 1; "Port District Plan is Told," Ibid., September 26, 1924, p. 1; "Port District Plan Favored," Ibid.,  October 2, 1924; "Port Area Plan Pushed," Ibid.,  September  19, 1924, p. 1; "Port Petitions Being Checked," Ibid., October 10, 1924, p. 1;  "Port Question Goes on Ballot," Ibid., October 17, 1924, p. 1;  "Port Candidates Names on Ballot," Ibid., October 24, 1924, p. 1; "Many Benefits Looked For," Ibid., October 31, p.1; "Port District," Ibid., November 7, 1924, p. 1; "Port Townsend History," City of Port Townsend website accessed July 15, 2010 (; "Port History,"  Port of Port Townsend website accessed July 10, 2010 (; "Maritime History of Port Townsend," Jefferson County Historical Society website accessed July 7, 2010 (; Elwood Evans and Edmond S. Meany, The State of Washington: A Brief History of the Discovery, Settlement and Organization of Washington, the Evergreen State (Tacoma: World's Fair Commission of the State of Washington, 1893), 137; Strategic Plan: 2010-2015 (Port of Port Townsend, March 24, 2010); Port of Port Townsend Comprehensive Scheme: Resolution No. 9 (Port of Port Townsend, October 4, 1926); Port of Port Townsend Comprehensive Scheme of Harbor Improvement Update (Port Townsend: Port of Port Townsend, March 2003) available at (; Sue Nelson, Port Executive Assistant and Public Records Officer, emails to John Caldbick, June 24, July 13, July 14, July 16, 2010, in possession of John Caldbick, Seattle, Washington; John Caldbick interview with Larry Crockett, Executive Director, Port of Port Townsend, June 30, 2010, Port Townsend.

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